On autonomy and access

Last Monday, Williams for Life (WFL) brought an anti-abortion display to Paresky. The Williams community had a variety of reactions, and many people were deeply upset. By now, I hope most of you have seen the Feminist Collective counterdisplay in Paresky, which aims to present an alternative framework with which to understand abortion, and to give voice to students who felt silenced by last week’s display. As a co-chair of the Feminist Collective and a fervent reproductive justice advocate, I write this op-ed to accompany that display and provide more information about the reproductive justice framework.

SisterSong, the organization whose founding members coined the term, defines reproductive justice as follows: “The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments – is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life … [and] is important for women of color.
It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power. Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny. Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible, three minimal cornerstones of government support for all individual life decisions.”

Moreover, the organization’s website states, reproductive justice attempts to move away from a single focus on abortion and toward including “other social justice issues that concern communities of color,” such as “issues of economic justice, the environment, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation.”

As a feminist who is also committed to antiracism and anticapitalism, I don’t subscribe to the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy; instead, I identify as pro-access and refer to my opponents as anti-access. The legislators fighting to shut down abortion clinics are not pro-life (as I will explain shortly), but are instead attempting to prevent women (especially poor women and women of color) from accessing reproductive healthcare. The language of choice obscures the fact that even when abortion is fully legal and every individual supposedly has the ability to make free choices, some women have more options than others, depending on class, race and region. Fighting for reproductive justice means fighting for all people with uteruses to have access to safe, legal abortion.

It is vitally important to understand that regardless of when you believe life begins, fighting to ban safe, legal abortion is not pro-life, and is anti-woman. As Beth Fredrick of the International Women’s Health Coalition in the United States points out, “The legal status of abortion has never dissuaded women and couples, who, for whatever reason, seek to end pregnancy.”  According to Talcott Camp, of the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, abortion rates remain constant whether abortion is legal or illegal. However, when abortion is illegal, women die. Illegal abortion often leads to unsafe abortion, as well as a lack of access to abortion in life or death situations. In other words, even if we grant the premise that fetuses have lives (which I personally don’t, but that is a personal choice), then an undeniably greater number of lives is lost when abortion is illegal. There are ways to be authentically feminist and “pro-life,” such as increasing access to birth control, supporting healthcare for all, increasing public benefits, participating in anti-poverty work, et cetera. But opposing legal abortion simply does not protect life.

Lastly, I would like to condemn all public shaming surrounding the issue of abortion. Regardless of the intention of WFL, their display shamed the members of the Williams community who have exercised their reproductive freedom and had abortions.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, “At 2008 abortion rates, one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in 10 by age 45.”  This means that one-third of women have abortions in their lifetimes, and thus, that a significant number of the women on the Williams campus have had abortions. Thus it is vitally important when discussing this issue to remember that this is not abstract; abortion is a deeply real experience for many in our community. I hope that fact will inform the way we speak about the ethics of abortion and make public statements in Paresky about which choices are right or wrong for someone else’s body.

I am deeply committed to each person’s right to bodily autonomy, and, personally, I do not believe that fetuses have or need rights. But I recognize that everyone’s feelings about that are informed by religion, culture, family and experience. It is important to remember, then, that no matter when we individually feel that life begins, banning abortion leads to death. There is, of course, much more to say on the topics of abortion and reproductive justice. My goals in writing this are to introduce the reproductive justice framework to those who are unfamiliar with it, and to stand in solidarity with my fellow people with uteruses who vitally need access to the full range of reproductive options. We all have the right to control our own bodies and be treated with respect.

Isy Abraham-Raveson ’15 is a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major from Montclair, N.J. She lives in Poker.

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